Monday’s Winter Classic wasn’t the first outdoor game for recent Connecticut Whale graduates Stu Bickel and Carl Hagelin. And both of them played like it.
Bickel, Hagelin and John Mitchell all played important minutes in the New York Ranger’s 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Flyers Monday afternoon at Citizens Bank Ballpark.
Hagelin, the veteran of University of Michigan outdoor games, had the most important role of the three. Continuing his strong all-around play Hagelin’s speed showed and his consistently good play was arguably the best on the ice. He didn’t get on the score sheet, but he nearly did, leading the team in shots with five. He played key minutes down the stretch with the Rangers leading by just one goal and the Flyers coming hard, showing the faith John Tortorella has in his young forward.
The play we saw from the scrappy, speedy Swede was indicative of the success he’s had on the ice since his recall. With the way he played in Hartford, I saw this coming. I didn’t expect to see him return to wearing a green Whale jersey anytime soon and the Rangers are better for it. And now that Hagelin is not only contributing with his highly intellectual play, but also on the score sheet, he looks to be a fixture in the Rangers lineup for the rest of the season and beyond.
Bickel, who played in much colder conditions last Feburary in the Whale’s outdoor game, was paired with Marc Staal, playing his first game of the season after recovering from a concussion. Bickel’s important role included giving the Rangers a number of physical shifts and he ended his eight minutes on ice with no noticeable gaffes.
Unfortunately, Bickel’s strong play will likely not keep him in New York. The big defenseman, who has used his physical nature to give himself an edge early on, should return to Hartford once Michael Sauer returns from injuries or the defensive pairings are shaken up when Staal gets more ice time and returns to being 100 percent on the ice. But it’s obviously Tortorella likes what he’s seen from the young defenseman, giving him plenty of opportunities to play himself into the Rangers lineup.
Mitchell made an obvious impact on the score sheet with his two assists on Mike Rupp’s two goals. On a line with Rupp and Brandon Prust, Mitchell played key minutes during the game’s decisive moments like Hagelin did.
Mitchell has been more of a surprise to me than Hagelin, because he needed to change roles upon his arrival to New York. In Hartford, Mitchell was one of the team’s offensive leader. Yet he always played hard, was a strong forechecker and commanded respect from other teams. He’s obviously a gifted player, but at age 26 hasn’t really been able to put it all together. He could be an important part of New York’s success moving forward whether he’s in the starting lineup or a spare forward.
Combined, the three have been beneficial to the Rangers in their own way, a trend that speaks volumes to the player development inside the franchise.